1 November 2017

Learning to speak

    One of my favorite holiday's, while perhaps not officially celebrated, is still an event look forward to unlike any other. National Novella Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo starts tonight, for anyone lost to the detail's Here is their website.

    Over the next 30 days, I am going to tell a story dear to myself, titled Learning to Speak. Whilst I would hardly call myself disabled now, I'm aware of how much progress I have made, I have struggled with a learning disability, Autism, my whole life. I wish to write about that, about my experiences with it, and how it affected me.

    I want to start out by describing one scene from my childhood, when I was particularly young. It was breaktime, there are 30, 40, 50 something kids, running around screaming and playing together. All except one. He wasn't bullied, or excluded, quite the opposite in fact. But he sat on the corner of the playground, overlooking the sports field. No'one was playing, but he looked out over that way regardless. That image still ring's in my mind very clearly, and it holds a lot of significance to the narrative I wish to discuss.

    Right around the time I discovered my disability, when I was diagnosed through secondary school, and when I started to understand how different I was from everyone else. There was a lot of growth through that time. I wasn't particularly happy with who I was, I wasn't happy with the cards I had been dealt, and I started making a concious effort to change that. If socialising and personal care didn't come naturally to me, I committed myself to learning the hard way how develop these skill's. It wasn't an easy task, there were no mentor's or experts I could learn from, because it's something that most people kinda just pick up as they go along. I want to go into detail about my experiences here, and how discontented I was with myself, and how that affected me going into college.

    College was a very important turning point in my life. I studied games development for two years, and media studies after that. It was probably the most important few years yet, for multiple reasons: it inspired my love of Animation, it was a time for me to focus 100% on the medium I love and was the cause I met a lot of important friends (having a common ground to talk about really helped me develop my social skills, and was crucial to me today) but most importantly, I learned about fictional characters. I learned how to properly dissect a characters belief's and motives, I learned how to write an interesting character, I learned a lot of the important things that makes people tick... And I used what I learned to develop my own character, learn about myself, my friends around me, learned how to create someone who I wanted to be, and act the part. This was a huge step towards me learning how to deal with my disability, and I want to talk about that in my story.

    I am very excited for this coming month, can't wait to get started, I have my plan written up and ready. This year may be a more personal than other years, but that just makes things all the more exciting.

19 October 2017

The Difficulty of Matching Story to Gameplay

    Whilst incredible when done correctly, a lot of games run into trouble when asked to tell a story in their experience, often taking control away from the player during these moments and separating the two with a very clear divide. In this article, I wish to explore a couple games that fall prey to this, and some recent examples of games hitting the nail on the head.

   I could draw examples from the entire Final Fantasy franchise, however I wish to focus on Final Fantasy 7 for its fame. Final Fantasy 7 has an amazing story, with beautifully written characters, and fantastic twist's and turns in the narrative. However you could cut the RPG out of the game, throw some actors at it and turn it into a film, and you would by all accounts have the same experience. Combat is constantly separated from the rest of the game, exploring the world is primarily about loot acquisition. There is some story and development tied into the vignette's, stage setup and triggered event's, but a flaw with the game is the severe lack of interactive story telling for a video game.

   I would compare this to another RPG, one with a significantly weaker story, in Pokémon. Story in Pokémon games traditionally is near nonexistent. There are 2 story lines in every game intertwined, one where the evil organisation (Team Rocket, Team Magma, Team Skull, etc.) Is chasing after a powerful Pokémon with evil intent. And the other story is the protagonist becoming a Pokémon master. No tragedy bi real character development. (though this has improved with more recent games,) yet the story matches the mechanics near perfectly. Becoming a Pokémon master is about overcoming obstacles, filling the Pokédex, and your Pokémon growing up, something well represented by the focus on the leveling up mechanics and Pokémon catching mechanics over all else.

    Another comparison that could be made, would be comparing FPS games Spec ops: The Line, to Destiny. Both amazing games, but there is a very real argument to be made that Destiny doesn't represent it's story at all good enough in it's gameplay. They focused on making the game enjoyable first, then slotted a story around it later on down the pipeline. The story is pretty weak, doesn't fit particularly well, just like it's soundtrack. If you were to experience these separately from a game format, it would be amazing, as a novella or a film. However as a game, there's very little reason given why we are doing what we are doing in the game. There is a lot of story in Destiny, but it's all situated outside the game. It happened in the past, it's recorded on some website, rather than represented in large in the full game. And while this isn't inherently a bad thing, see League of Legends for example, it's a tool that doesn't fit every game. And a game that has a clear beginning, middle and end, has plenty of ways of utilising this storytelling technique.

    Spec Ops: The Line as juxtaposition, is a game praised for it's beautiful story, Without any spoiler's, they have taken very heavy theme's about war, dark dangerous storyline s for a dark dangerous job shooting enemy forces. It's a very fitting game for the emotions they wanted to evoke in the player, what better game to explore the minds of war, than a first person shooter? The characters are very real, they have a lot of emotion, a lot of expression. A far cry from other FPS games where you mow down a hundred soldiers without thinking twice, Spec Ops: The Line is a game that straight up wouldn't work as any other genre of game.

   I of course don't mean to suggest that there is only one perfect story to be told by each genre, that each game needs to perfectly encapsulate it's story through gameplay mechanics, I don't mean that at all. Some games can absolutely decide to prioritise making the gameplay good, then introducing story and character at a later date. Recent multiplayer only games Overwatch and League of Legends are perfect examples of this, where there is mountains of story for players to engross themselves in, but that don't get shown at all in the actual game. You could have never played them before, and just by poring over the pages and pages of League of Legends lore and developing content, you can get a grasp for the story behind the world. By watching Overwatch's animated shorts, reading their comics, their short stories, you can absolutely discover the story behind the scene's of the game, story that ultimately has very little impact on the actual multiplayer aspect of them. I also feel like the gameplay itself is vastly improved, because they never have to consider what story might become wrong if they make a big change.

    To conclude, I think there is a lot of important discussion to be had around this topic. Whether we should anchor our idea's to the game genre (or the other way around), whether we do the opposite and ignore it, or where that sweetspot in the middle actually lies. Whether it's best to focus on story or gameplay is certainly a question with no easy answer. Some will prefer it one way, others another, it really comes down to a point of personal preference.

27 September 2017

The Indie Game charm.

    Indie games and their developers can be a very interesting point of discussion. When considering how much games cost to make, how huge a task it can be, you'd think it near impossible for a couple blokes in a basement be able to make a whole game in a few years, comparing it to film making which is arguably easier, you wouldn't dream of making a whole 90 minute feature film all by yourself, yet somehow games developers make it work with blood sweat and tears. They garner pretty huge fanbases too, there are some people who will bend over backwards for new indie developers, but won't give the time of day to published titles. While somewhat more controversial for many reason's, We Happy Few, previously a little indie survival game is receiving criticism because they were just acquired by a big name publisher. (more details here, it's not just publishing issues.) In this article, I want to touch on some of the things that make indie games tick, and why they have earned this reputation.

    One of the most instantly recognisable traits of indie games, is the lack of photo-realistic graphics. They don't have the time, money or manpower to create that kind of product, it's a simply problem though, you just have to look outside the box to make the game still look and play good, with as few resources as possible. We call these, stylised graphics. They will still have detail in them, but they will limit it and allow their scene's to be simpler and let the players imagination take over more. Games like Salt and Sanctuary get through with simple 2D animation, games like Gone Home have used a lack of bump mapping, simple models, and modest textures to create a flatter image from scene to scene, and tried to keep it clean so you didn't focus too hard on the lack of graphical fidelity the game settled with. The decision to use simpler techniques early on and work with them, is an intelligent decision because you don't need these extra techniques to make a game look good, a good artist can make amazing things with just a single permanent marker, if they know what their tool's are capable of. While they might get better results with more advanced techniques and equipment, they don't chase after that impossibility and focus on doing the best with what is in front of them.

    Majority of these games also try to keep their games short, sweet and too the point. This is another one of the indie games limitations, they don't have the money or manpower to make a game on the scale of say Metal Gear Solid, or Elder Scroll's. The don't have the team to build that kind of game, so they have to settle for something smaller. This isn't always a bad thing though, because with smaller projects you can give more due care and attention to every individual part of the game, than you ever could making a Battlefield or Call of Duty sized game. You have the liberty of play-testing the entire game not just for bugs, but for quality. You get to ensure that every line of dialogue a character says fits them, you get to ensure that every side-quest is a value add to the game, or that every encounter, puzzle, or event is worthwhile.

    A game I played recently is a very good case refering to this. Mages of Mystralia, a little adventure/puzzle game, is a game simply brimming with character and thought. Even nobody NPC's you talk to have some sort of personality, the world itself is packed with minute little details and information. Such example's I noticed were all of the headstones in a cemetary having unique writing on them. One of them was related to the story, "This one seem's to have been freshly dug." "..." which held a lot of story significance, It was refering to the protagonist's uncle dying to her actions at the beginning of the game. Others would be the little scars the protagonist's actions leave on the world. You burned down an evil tree spirit, you can see where they died scorched into the ground. These little details are something that's easy to miss in a game the scale of Elder Scroll's, though they try their best, you simply can't get to all of it with the same level of care, and they are essential for building a world, turning a level from a part of the game, to a real believable place.

    There are hundreds of examples of this amongst indie games, Undertale springs instantly to mind as a game that just didn't stop at a one word answer. Every character in the game has a personality, even some of the near nameless enemies have personality and character. Salt and Sanctuary, they had the liberty of extensively play testing and improving the game systems, well past when the game was "finished". Because the game is somewhat smaller with simpler graphics and a simpler engine, it is a lot more manageable of a task to develop where the game was lacking. These are a little bit dated, but PopCap games' work in Peggle and Plants vs Zombies did this too. They started with really simple idea's, but instead of leaving it just black and white, they spent time fleshing out wacky and wonderful characters to inhabit it.

    There is one game however, that I want to mention not because it possesses this trait and uses it well, but rather because they specifically decided against that. Hellblade, Senua's Sacrifice completely breaks this mold, they decided it was more important for the game to focus more on the technical side of things, making sure the gameplay is good, making the graphics are as high quality as possible and avoiding a stylised art style. You could tell that indie charm wasn't on their agenda, they wanted to provide a different kind've experience that that. Still an amazing game regardless from what I know, but for different reason's.

    Indie games are an interesting subject, I think it's amazing that they knew they couldn't beat the big developers at their own game, so they found their own little niche's and slipped through the cracks to gamers publishers just can't reach. It's certainly important that both exist (even if publishers have been commiting suicide recently with these PR moves and "money is everything" attitude) because there are some games that little indie companies will certainly struggle creating. I mentioned Hellblade earlier, but I consider that an outlier from a seriously talented team, and not everyone can follow Ninja Theory's footsteps. Some of the problems development teams face, is just simply not being able to pay their workforce to finish the game by the deadline, something a multi million dollar company just so happens to be useful for.